Harper's Weekly, December 6, 1879


Harpers Weekly

December 6, 1879

Irish Peasant Life

In the picture on page 961 Mr Boughton gives a delightful characteristic sketch of Irish life. The laborious attitude of two women intent on cultivating a poor bit of soil; and winning from it is possible the wherewithal to satisfy their hunger, shows that despairing thrift which is often found among the females of the Irish nation. The genial humor of the ragged gentleman on the left, who has not the slightest notion of sharing their toil, though very likely he proposes to live upon the results, recalls innumerable stories of the deep-seated content with which the true Celt sometimes regards his life of indolence and squalor. This might be the gentleman who, when asked why he did not turn the pig out of his cabin, replied, "Faith an' ain't it clane an' comfortable, an' iverything a reasonable pig might desire?"

It is a unanimously agreed by all traveller that in no civilized country in the world is there as much dirt, indigence, and misery to be found as in Ireland. The houses of the wealthiest proprietors even are without the elegance and comfort to be found in England, and the cabins of the poor are as slight protection from the climate as any ever reared in civilized countries. They are without chimneys or floors, and are made of mud and straw, and covered with sods and heath. Many have not windows, and few have more than a single pane. The door is often but a straw mat. The furniture is in keeping with the house and if there be any besides the crock, it is but a chest, a bench, a table, and a bed. There is but one room, and this is free not only to any person to enter without knocking, but equally open to "the fowl and the brute". The villages often consist of whole streets of mud cabins. The city of Dublin, the centre of which is hardly surpassed in Europe for the beauty and splendor of its edifices, is surrounded by miserable hovels, inferior in comfort to the wigwam and tent of the Western savage. There is little variety in the food of the greater part of the Irish, which consists principally of buttermilk and potatoes, though in spring there is not always a sufficiency even of these, and the scarcity often rises to a famine. A cow is kept in almost every cabin, but neither butter, cheese, nor even poultry and eggs, are ever thought of by the common people as articles of food for themselves; these go to pay rents, taxes, and thithes, and the buttermilk only is reserved for the proprietors. Every family has, if not other furniture, at least one capacious article, called a crock, or kettle, which is convertible to many uses. The water is brought home, clothers are washed, potatoes boiled, and the harvest of potatoes often brought home in the crock. The crock, or potato bowl, is placed in the middle of the floor, and the family gathers round it, squatting on the hams to eat. At least this is the practice where there are not tables or movable seats. The beggar is as welcome as an inmate of the cabin, and is never turned from the door; such inhospitality, it would be feared, would bring a curse upon the cabin.

From time immemorial Ireland has been a "poor distressful country," and its present outlook seems to threaten as evil days as any it has yet seen. The facts that are disclosed to us by what is called the rent agitation seem to show that this unfortunate nations is upon the eve of another experience that may prove almost a bitter as that of the "potato famine". Putting aside the exaggerated statements made by those who preside at the meetings that are being held in every part of the country, we learn from the accounts given by such moderate writers as Archbishop McHale, that Ireland is in a alarming condition. In the beginning this prelate employed the most active measures in denouncing the agitation; but in the letter addressed by him to the promoters of a monster meeting held in Athenry on the 1st of November, he distinctly reversed this opinion. In this epistle he says the benevolent and patriotic desire of the clergy of Athenry to assemble in that town on All-saints Day the inhabitants of the neighboring districts to call upon the rulers of the country to hasten to the relief of the people in this season of almost universal distress, has his warm approval. The notoriously faithless observations indulged in recently by the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have to be met, he says, by the healthy, resolute, and persevering agitation outside Parliament , and by renewed and continued constitution action on the part of Ireland's representatives in the British House of Commons. The exaction of the high rents of prosperous years, together with the distressed value of every commodity that the small farmer produces, readily accounts for the existence of wide-spread pecuniary difficulties. The potato crop can to a great extent be considered as hopelessly lost, the oat crop is in many places seriously damaged, and the dearth of fuel will leave the poor man's prospects during the approaching winter and spring as cheerless and dreary as any witnessed since the famine years. He asks that remunerative employment be promptly and largely given to the people, that the land owners, even those who have let their lands on equitable terms, shall participate to some extent in the general distress, and, above all, that those who, heedless of the principles of humanity, have doubled and trebled their rents beyond their worth and estimated by public valuation, shall display sympathy for the wretched serfs by proportionally reducing their rents.

The rest of the article talks about Parnell and the Land League movement, does a comparison of farm sizes in New England and Ireland (stating that the average size of a farm in Ireland is twenty acres), and listing the reactions of some of the major landlords in Ireland to this particular crisis.

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The Potato and Other Crops
Irish Life